PV’s Playhouse – Mortal Combat


My original plan for today was to talk about the new rules changes – basically an explanation and some questions to judges since they’re so confusing. That plan did not work very well when I found out there were two other people already writing about the subject, so I decided that I am going to talk about a very important, yet often misunderstood aspect of Magic – the combat phase.

The importance of understanding combat changes from deck to deck and from format to format – Eternal games, for example, rarely come down to combat, and you don’t really have to know anything about how to attack and block to play Vintage. Once you get to the Limited end of the spectrum, though, you will find complex board states and you will not do well if you can’t manage them.

Most of the time, combat requires a little bit of math, and there is no way around that – you simply have to do it. Luckily, when I say math, I don’t mean complicated calculations – I am not a math genius and I do just fine. Some people have such a math aversion that they would rather not even try, which is very dumb because it’s very easy, and there are a lot of embarrassing situations that can be avoided if the person takes twenty seconds to add and multiply a couple numbers. So, the first rule of combat math is don’t be lazy and do the math instead of simply hoping that “things will be OK”!

One big problem people have with combat is that they get way too focused on the role they have to assume at the time that they forget to play Magic. Most of the time, when we’re in a defensive position, we will concentrate on that completely – our priority is going to be “how can I survive?” and that is going to overwhelm everything else to the point where people forget to attack with guys that they are not going to block with anyway. Imagine that you have a 1/4 and a 1/1, and your opponent has three 3/3s, all of them tapped from bashing you last turn – now, you have to figure out if you’re going to chump block with your 1/1 or not, but, if you realize that you aren’t, then just attack! Sure, the score is about to be 8-19, but if you hadn’t attacked it was going to be 8-20, that guy is not blocking anyway and he is certainly not scaring your opponent.

The exception to this rule is that when you fear something specific that might make you want to block, and you think it’s worth throwing away a couple points of damage to stop something from happening, which could be either because the points of damage mean very little or because the “thing” is truly bad. Imagine, for example, that you have [card]Squadron Hawk[/card] in play and they have [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] – if they simply attack with Mystic you’re not going to block with Hawk, because Hawk is worth more than one life, but if they tap out to play [card]Sword of Feast and Famine[/card] and then attack, then suddenly blocking is worth it. Sometimes they don’t tap out to play Sword and you look foolish by having wasted a point of damage, but the assurance you had that you were not going to be victim of the Sword attack is often worth it.

It is also common to not attack to play around a removal spell in one of your blockers – in this situation, you potentially waste points of damage too, but that is because you think the probability of him having something multiplied by the impact of that is higher than the impact of your attack (and here you don’t actually have to use any numbers, but this is basically what we do subconsciously). Imagine, for example, that you have two [card]Kird Ape[/card]s and your opponent has [card]Geist of Saint Traft[/card] in play – now, if he doesn’t have anything, clearly you want to attack with one Ape, since that gives you the best damage ratio you can get (you deal 2 and take 0). If he kills your blocking Ape, though, then it suddenly becomes the worst damage ratio (you deal 2 and take 6, when you could have sat back and dealt 0 to take 0). How do you know if you should attack or not? There are two main factors:

What are the life totals? Sometimes, you can afford the worst case scenario – sometimes taking six for them to take two is not even that bad. Remember that you’re not choosing to trade “six for two”, though sometimes you will actually want that (i.e. attacking with both Apes to begin with), you’re trading two for [chance they remove your ape] * 6, which can be any number from almost 6 to almost 0 depending on other factors.

What are they playing? How likely is it that they have a removal spell and want to use it? If they’re playing Zoo, then you probably have to assume they have something and that they’ll be very glad to use it on a [card]Kird Ape[/card], but what if they’re playing Bant and their only removal is [card]Path to Exile[/card]? They need to not only have it but to also want to Path your Kird Ape – is the six damage worth the Path? Sometimes yes, sometimes no, and that adds to the probability too. If you have a [card]Knight of the Reliquary[/card] in your hand and can spare the life, sometimes it’s even good for you that he Paths the Ape, so you should attack with one guy just to provoke that play from him.

Imagine, for example, that you are playing Limited and you have two 1/1s to your opponent’s 4/1, and you’re both at 20. Here, your choices are almost always attack with one 1/1 or with none. Maybe you think he has a ton of removal spells in his deck, but, regardless, if you only leave one back, do you think he is going to spend removal on a 1/1 to deal four damage? And if he does that, do you even care? Here, you need to know what they’re playing – if they’re the very aggressive BR deck from Innistrad and the removal is something like [card]Geistflame[/card], which only kills small guys and he would not mind “wasting” to push four damage through, then you probably do care and shouldn’t attack with anybody; if he is playing a somewhat slower GW deck, where board position is going to matter more than the life total, and his removal is [card]Bonds of Faith[/card], then you’re probably very safe in attacking with one guy.

Sometimes there is no way for you to know what the game is going to be about – cards, life or something else. In those situations, your opponent’s behavior tells you a lot, and you should probably just do the opposite of what he wants – if he seems inclined to waste spells to get damage through, or to not blocking your 3/1s with his 2/1s so he can attack with them, that is probably because he has something that is going to win him the race ([card]Feeling of Dread[/card], [card]Nightbird’s Clutches[/card], Burn spell, etc), so you should probably start trading yourself and playing more defensively.

What I’ve talked about so far are mostly simple boards – one or two guys facing each other, and one decision. Sometimes, boards get super complicated and then most people have no clue what to do, so they decide to play it safe and pass the turn. I can’t say that this is wrong – when you don’t know what to do, you should probably do nothing – but people should not be in the “I don’t know what to do” situation as often as they are. As a general rule of thumb, if you have a lot of cards in your deck that can get you out of the situation (such as bombs, fliers, removal for their flying blocker, etc), then you can relax more and not worry so much about just passing and extending the game, but if your best cards are already in play and there is not much you can draw then you have to try to figure something out.

One thing I see a lot is people desperately attacking with everything, only to figure out that the outcome of the combat greatly favors them and most of the opposing guys are dead, so they should have attacked ten turns ago. The reason this happens is because we get locked into individual trades – 5/5 gets double blocked by 3/3s, 2/1s trade, etc – but we don’t see the big picture. If the 5/5 is getting double blocked by the 3/3s, then who is blocking the 3/3s? If the 2/1s trade, who is chumping the 4/4? Is he just taking 10 damage? You can’t check each creature individually, because that is pretty much never going to favor you, no doubt any single creature can be dealt with. Imagine, for example, you have a 9/9 and two 3/3s, and your opponent has a 3/4 and two 3/3s – if you look at the 9/9, you probably don’t want to attack, and if you look at the 3/3s you certainly don’t want to attack, but if you look at the whole army then you might – either he blocks three for three, in which case you simply trade 3/3s (which is good for you, since it means your 9/9 is not getting gang blocked in the future), or he triple blocks the 9/9 and then the end result is that you have two 3/3s facing a 3/3 and he has taken six damage.

In complicated situations, you really need to know how to block, and then you do that for your opponent – imagine that you are him and then attack with your guys, and see how you would block with his board. If the end result is favorable for you, then consider attacking – but don’t attack yet! There is more to it than just the immediate board situation, since he is taking the next turn. Here, you have to figure out not only what you are both going to be left with but also what he is going to attack with next turn – an attack is no good if it kills half his creatures but leaves you dead to a counterattack, and it’s also not good if you don’t lose anything and deal 3 but then take 6 on the counterattack. Most people can do this, but they stop there, and they shouldn’t – you should go one step further. You need to know what he is going to attack with, and the way to do that is to figure out what your next attack is going to be if he attacks, because that is what he will be thinking about. Basically, the way this works is – most people think in a one turn cycle, that is, they see the immediate consequences of their actions. When your opponent is deciding whether he is going to attack or not, he is going to look at your next turn – “if I attack, what will he attack back with”. If you think on yet another turn, then you can be on the exact same spot he is, and predict his movements so that you know if you should attack this turn or not.

This might be a bit confusing, so here is an example:

You have a 2/1 flier and a 5/5 flier that regenerates (so it’s not just going to get double blocked). Your opponent has two 3/3 fliers, and the board is otherwise crowded with ground guys. It’s your turn, and you can either attack with your 5/5 or not. One might think:

– I attack with my 5/5 dealing 5 damage. Then, on his turn, he attacks with two 3/3s, dealing 6 damage. Not a good trade.

This is not correct. First of all, you attack first, which changes everything, but more importantly for the example, once you attack and deal 5, then it’s going to be his turn, and he is going to be facing with:

“I have two 3/3s. If I attack with both, I deal 6 and take 7 (!) damage on the way back. If I attack with only one, I deal 3 and take 5.” Now, here, your opponent could either attack or not – it’s going to depend on life totals. 6/7 is still a better ratio than 3/5 for him, but since he has just taken 5, he might not be able to afford it, and in this case he is not going to attack with both 3/3s. The important thing here is that both ratios favor you – what originally looked like a bad trade (5 for 6) becomes a good trade once you think one turn deeper, that, if he attacks, your 2/1 that was not doing anything is also going to attack and deal two damage.

Then, you have to extrapolate this to those epic boards, which is hard, but the concept is the same – think about your attacks and his blocks, and then his attack, and then your next attack. You can keep going, of course, but then it’s harder, and this is usually enough for a complex board (though if it’s as clear cut as my example, then just go ahead and do the math for the entire game until a person dies).

The way to not make the board overly complicated is to follow it as it develops; if you were to be dropped on a board of seven creatures facing six creatures, then you would probably take too long to figure it out, but that is never how it happens unless someone plays something like [card]Living Death[/card] or [card]Hypergenesis[/card] – most of the time, you can follow the board. Once you each have one creature out and then a creature is added, you don’t reevaluate the entire board – you just “add that creature” to whatever you had previously concluded. Then another creature is played (or killed), and you adjust the board you already had to accommodate that – it’s still the same board. If you see it that way and never lose track of what is going on, then the 8th creature that is played is only going to add “1 complexity” to it – it’s going to be harder, but not much different than the second, the third or the fourth creatures played.

The popular saying goes that “the best defense is a good offense”, and that is often true for Magic. Sometimes, you don’t even have anything, but you should attack anyway because that puts the fear of death in them, and it might make them not attack next – remember, they don’t know that you don’t have anything, and they don’t want to die to removal, pump or direct damage. If you don’t attack ever, then you don’t threaten them, and then at some point you just die – force them to make a decision.

Sometimes, your opponent has a bunch of small guys and you have a big guy, and he “chump attacks” into it every turn – in this situation, it’s not rare that you should be the one attacking and forcing him to chump block, and not the opposite. Imagine that he has a bunch of [card]Empty the Warrens[/card] tokens and you have a [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] that is lethal or almost lethal – if you attack, then he is going to block and you’re going to kill a token, which is the exact same scenario as if he had attacked you (same damage, one token dead), except that you don’t give him a choice, whereas if you hold back to block then he can choose not to attack and you can’t do anything about it.

Let’s go back to the 5/5 flier example, except now we are the player with the 3/3s – in this situation, everything else equal, I would almost always attack with both my 3/3s, not only because it is a better damage ratio (again, 6/7 over 3/5) but because it gives me a way to win! If I wait, then I’m just going to die to four attacks from the 5/5, but if I attack you, then maybe I can draw that [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] and manage to win the race, or maybe you start considering that and then you don’t attack with your 5/5 next turn, or you decide to keep the 2/1 back to chump – it’s not great for me, but it’s better than dying.

Well, this is basically what I had for today. To sum it up:

Stop being lazy and do the math

If a creature is not blocking, attack with it, even if it doesn’t look like it’s important it’s better than nothing

Try to figure how likely it is that your opponent is going to use removal spells to push damage through and how much you care about that, and then make your attacking decisions accordingly

When attacking, think of the big picture and not each attacker individually

Try to keep track of the board and reevaluate it a little every time something is added, rather than having to figure everything out when it’s already very complicated

Think on the board state, then his next attack and then your next attack

When desperate, attack – they don’t know what you have and you never know what they might think

I hope you’ve enjoyed it, see you next week!


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